Saturday, September 18, 2010

Let justice roll down like waters...

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13

Amos 8:4-7

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen


It always comes down to money.

For as long as humanity has dealt with any kind of accumulation of wealth, we have argued about it. And fought about it. For as long as we have used money, some have more and some have had less, and some have used wisely and some have squandered it, and some have been honest and some have lied and stolen and cheated. For as long as we’ve had money, it has exerted an inordinate power in our lives.

Some things never change.

Jesus knew this. Jesus talked more about money and our relationship to it than almost any other subject. Amos knew this. As a simple herdsman he probably never had much money but he understood its power.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that both our Hebrew scripture reading and our gospel involve MONEY—money and its use and misuse, money and our relationship with it.

In our Hebrew scripture we hear from the prophet Amos. Amos was called by God some 800 years before Jesus’ birth—called to leave his home in a small village south of Jerusalem and travel north, to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to deliver God’s words, God’s warnings to a people who seemed to be forgetting what their covenant with God really meant.

The Northern Kingdom, you see, was enjoying a period of relative peace and prosperity, a time when all should have been well. But instead, greed was rampant and the gap between the rich and the poor was ever widening. What’s more, the people seemed to forget that their relationship with God entailed more than just observing the Sabbath, and the holy days. They forgot that what they did the other six days of the week mattered. They forgot that their behavior in every realm of their lives reflected their relationship with God. It had gotten so bad that some were even heard wishing for the Sabbath to end quickly so that they could get back to business—back to cheating and lying and exploiting in order to increase their wealth.

It fell to Amos to point out to the people of the Northern Kingdom, to the rich and prosperous—which of course included the king—the error of their ways. It fell to Amos to remind them that their God was a God of justice, and that as God’s chosen people they were called to live just lives themselves, to order their lives in such a way that all could prosper, and to show special concern for the powerless-- the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, the needy, and the poor.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” Amos cried. (Amos 5:24)

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Amos’ words were not well received. Some things never change.

Which brings us to the gospel. The parable of the unjust steward—or the shrewd steward, take your pick—is one of the most difficult passages in the gospels to understand. Jesus tells the story of a man, a manager, who was called on the carpet because there were rumors that he’d been squandering his boss’ wealth—whether it was through mismanagement or thievery we don’t know. The boss, the master, demands that the manager bring him a final accounting so that he can dismiss him and manager, understandably perhaps, freaks out. “I’m too old to labor and too proud to beg,” he says to himself, and then an idea comes to him. He calls in two of his accounts, and reduces the debt that each owes, hoping of course that being indebted to him they will care for him when he’s out of work and on the street. Then the “shrewd” manager returns to the master who instead of being even angrier at this continued mismanagement of his assets, commends the manager’s behavior. It’s puzzling indeed.

What’s even more puzzling is that Jesus does not lash immediately, condemning this dishonest behavior. Instead, he almost seems to recommend it, perhaps employing a little sarcasm, appreciating the irony of the situation when he says to his disciples, “…make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Whatever we think of the outcome of the parable, and of the manager’s actions, one thing is clear—dishonesty begat more dishonesty. Lack of faithfulness begat more unfaithfulness. Devotion to money above all else ruptured relationships and caused a cascade of behavior that just multiplied the wrongs. The last line of the gospel highlights this: You cannot serve God and wealth.

We cannot serve God and wealth. Like the message that Amos brought to the people of the Northern Kingdom, this message from Jesus is one that is hard to hear—it was hard in Jesus’ time, and it’s hard now, because we have a love affair with money. Money means power, it means luxury, it means never wanting for anything, and what’s wrong with that?

Well, this is what’s wrong with that –when we make money the be-all and end-all of our existence – our god as it were – we buy into a system that is incompatible with the world God created and envisions for us. We become, like the manager who cheated his master to make up for cheating that same master, like the people of Israel who observed the Sabbath all the while longing for its end so that they could return to their scheming ways, destined to continue behaviors that promote our own well-being at the expense of others. We participate in, we support unjust systems to serve ourselves.

God wants something better for us, for all of humanity, all of creation. God wants a world in which every living creature is cared for, in which the needs of one are not met at the expense of another. God wants a world in which “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

That doesn’t mean that we must give up our money, abandon our jobs, or empty our retirement savings. But it does mean that we must remember that God is the source of all that we have, and that God holds us accountable for how we use that abundance. We can’t serve God and wealth, but we can use our wealth to serve God, to restore a world in which there is true economic justice for every human being, in which we all live in the security of knowing that our needs will be met.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

In heaven all the tables are round

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 29, 2010
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen

When I was in the third grade my family moved from North Carolina to West Virginia, and I found myself as the “new kid” in the class. Being the new kid is always a little bit daunting, and this time, was no different. I missed my old friends and the only house I had known and my grandmother, but I began to make new friends and to adapt to a school where kindergarten through high school was on the same campus and we had a whole hour of recess at lunch time. And I really liked my new teacher, Mrs. Montgomery. Well, except for one thing: she kept talking about something she called “reseating” and I had no idea what she meant. She made it sound important, monumental even, and whatever it was would happen when we received our report cards. I was mystified, but I was also embarrassed to ask any of my new friends what she meant.

Come mid-year I found out. One cold snowy morning Mrs. Montgomery had us all drag our desks out of the neat straight rows they were in to the back of the classroom, and then she proceeded to instruct us in where to replace them—this was the mysterious “reseating;” you know, re-seating, getting new seats? Some how I had never made that connection. And it turns out that reseating was based on our grades; yes, in third grade, we were being lined up by our class rank: the child with the highest grades overall sat in the first seat in Row 1, and the child with the lowest grades was in the last seat in Row 4.

Of course, in third grade we hadn’t yet become too concerned about our grades, but we did understand that somehow where Mrs. Montgomery had us place our desks said something about us. And it became clear that being in Row 1 conferred some status, while being in Row 4 bordered on shameful.

I did make it into Row 1, although never into the first seat; after the first week or so, where we sat didn’t’ seem to matter that much unless our teacher made a comment about it. I admired the boy who sat in row 1, seat 1, but for reasons that had more to do with his sense of humor and friendliness than where he sat. And I always felt a little sorry for the girl who ended up in the last seat in row 4. Sandra had Down Syndrome, although we didn’t know enough to call it that. She was in our class because there were no special education services in the small school system, and she simply was passed on to the next grade every year. Sandra was friendly and cheerful, but I can’t help but wonder if she too didn’t sometimes feel the shame and stigma attached with her seat.

I hadn’t thought about third grade and “reseating” for a long time, but when I read this week’s gospel it was the first thing that popped into my head. I expect that Mrs. Montgomery, because she genuinely seemed to care about her students, meant reseating to be motivational, to prompt us to work harder; whether it actually served that purpose I don’t know, but I do know that for me at least, reseating was my first exposure to the notion that our gospel revolves around—the notion that that position matters.

Position matters—literally where you sit, and figuratively how your ‘standing’ is assessed by others matters—in our culture and in Jesus’ time. Being at the front of the line, at the head table, in the corner office matters. Status and honor and place matter.

At least to us. But to Jesus—not so much.

Jesus you see doesn’t see things the same way we do. For Jesus what matters is first of all being a child of God. What matters is loving God and loving others. Jesus doesn’t think more highly of us if we’re in Row 1, seat 1; Jesus doesn’t care if we’re in the corner office or stuck in that windowless cubby next to the elevator. In fact, Jesus might seek us out more quickly if we are at the end of row 4 or in the stuffy cubbyhole.

That’s a hard lesson for us to hear, it runs counter to the way we know things work in the world; like Jesus’ followers we live in a culture that is wont to rank order, compare, and judge. Prestige and honor and wealth matter.

Or do they?

When Jesus is at dinner with the Pharisee, he watches as the guests take their seats, and he sees them jockeying for position. And then as he reflects on their behavior he offers two sage pieces of advice for those who would follow him, those who would seek the kingdom of God.

First, he says, don’t immediately take the best seat, or even the second best. Instead go to the end of row 4, and maybe later you’ll be invited to move up. At least you won’t suffer the humiliation of being asked to move down; and really, it doesn’t matter anyway.

As startling as that might have been, what Jesus says next must have been even more jarring: When you invite guests, don’t even think about whether they can reciprocate. In fact, you should invite those you know CAN’T reciprocate: the poor, the hungry, the homeless. Invite them to the table; give them a seat of honor—because THAT is what the kingdom of God will be like. That is what the kingdom of God IS.

Jesus in not just playing Miss Manners; he’s concerned with far more than dinner parties and wedding feasts. Jesus is talking about LIFE. No matter what hand we’ve been dealt in this world—a world where then as now things never seem to come out equal and fair, we are all beloved children of God and we are called to love one another—not abstractly, but in our actions, every day. And if we’re among the lucky, the fortunate—as most of us are—it is all the more important for us to look out for those who are at the end of the line. We’re not called to judge them, we’re not call to blame them for their fate; we’re not called to tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No, we are called to invite them to the table as our brothers and sisters in Christ; we’re called to feed them and care for them and we’re called to work for justice, and to right the wrongs in the world that make it so easy for people to end up at the end of the line.

Because in God’s kingdom there won’t be a head table, our desks won’t be in neat rows. In God’s kingdom all the tables will be round, and all the plates will be full. In God’s kingdom, the only status that will matter is being God’s beloved child.

We don’t have to wait for God’s kingdom either. God’s kingdom is not just in the bye and bye—it is NOW – not complete, not finished, by any means, but it’s here; it’s here in that wonderful already-but-not-yet way, shimmering on the horizon and experienced in glory in those moments when we are able to live just as Jesus calls us to live— when we forget about earthy status, earthly prestige, earthly honor; when we invite everyone to the table to be fed and cared for and loved. Because in God’s kingdom, that’s what matters.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 25, 2010
Luke 11:1-13

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen

Do you remember how you learned to pray? Perhaps it was as a child, learning to say grace before meals: “God is great, God is good, now we thank God for our food…” or prayers before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” Perhaps you learned to pray the rosary, or maybe you memorized the confession and the Lord’s Prayer in confirmation class. If you were raised in the Episcopal Church, as I was, the words of the liturgy may have seeped into your consciousness, “we acknowledge and bewail our manifest sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed,” whether you understood them or not. Or if you grew up in a family where church going and prayer were not part of your routine, your first prayers might have been born out of desperation, “Help me, God,” or “Take care of her God,” or even, “I’m sorry, God!” or from a heart overflowing with relief and love, “Thank God he’s okay!”

Prayer is one the most elemental parts of our lives as people of faith. In our corporate worship we join in prayers to praise God and to ask God’s blessings for ourselves and others. As a parish we regularly pray for forgiveness, for healing, for strength, for patience. In our private prayers we ask for guidance, for God’s presence in our lives and for help in living as God would have us live.

As fundamental as it is to our lives though, in many ways, there is nothing harder than prayer. It’s often described simply as “talking with God,” which seems easy enough, right? But prayer requires us to open ourselves up, to bare our souls to God, and to let go of our need to be in control. At times, rather than being a source of peace and comfort, prayer can raise our anxiety levels. We wonder if we are praying enough, if we are we doing it “right”. We wonder what should we pray for and what it means when our prayers aren’t answered or at least not answered as we’d like them to be. We wonder if prayer still matters.

20th century preacher George Buttrick captures our ambivalence about prayer when he writes, “If God is not, and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit. If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly; it were nobler to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, [our]worthiest art, [our] best resource and sublimest joy.”[1]

In today’s gospel we get Jesus’ own take on prayer. Throughout the gospel of Luke we find Jesus praying: he withdrew to deserted places or to mountaintops to pray, he prayed before he called his disciples and when he fed the five thousand; he prayed in the garden before his arrest, and from the cross. Prayer was an integral part of Jesus’ life, and his disciples had witnessed this as they traveled with him.

Of course, as religious Jews, his disciples were no strangers to prayer themselves. No doubt they began their days with the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” blessed their food before eating, and prayed before they fell asleep at night. And yet, in watching Jesus immerse himself in prayer, they saw or felt or sensed that there might be yet more to know and so they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus replies with a prayer that is simple, straightforward, and covers all the basics—in a way a template for how to pray in general. The strength of this prayer is testified to by its persistence through the ages. In this prayer Jesus gives us a vocabulary, words to address God—Father he said, but we might just as well say Mother or Parent—the point is that we are to address God intimately, as one with whom we are in relationship, as one who loves us as a parent loves a child, indiscriminately and unconditionally. And then, hallowed: holy, sanctified be your name; your kingdom come. In the ancient world, where God’s name was too holy to be uttered, this invocation envisions God’s power and dominion in a world that then, as now, must often have felt out of control.

It is only after our relationship with God and God’s dominion in the world are acknowledged, Jesus tells us in this prayer, that we are to petition God to meet our needs. And in those petitions—which are corporate “we” not individual “I” we ask for the essentials, for those things we need to sustain life: food for the journey, forgiveness for our sins—those thing which take us away from God—and notice this: that forgiveness is hinged on our forgiveness of those indebted to us; and finally faithfulness—let us not be put to the test O God, because we surely will fall short.

This form of prayer Jesus gave to his disciples and to us, of course, is not the only way to pray. But in its beautiful simplicity it holds out for us something even more important than the words it employs; it holds out for us the promise that we often seem to be seeking when we question the reasonableness, the usefulness, the validity of prayer. In this prayer, Jesus invites us into relationship with the God who created us, loves us, and who desires, even needs our prayers. Jesus invites us into intimate relationship with the God who is Holy, the one in whom the power and glory reside, and then Jesus assures us that we can—should—ask that Holy One for those things we need, and we should be persistent, shameless even, to use a more precise translation of the Greek, in our asking. Jesus invites us to pray and then to release those prayers as we might release a helium balloon, letting them go where the spirit will take them, letting them become fuel for God’s action in the world.

When we enter into that kind of relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Holy, in and through prayer, then prayer, no matter what words we use, or whether we use words at all, indeed becomes for us our “worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”


[1] George Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1942) 15. Emphasis mine.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 18, 2010
Luke 10:38-42

Imagine this scene. You’ve invited your extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. Aunts, uncles, cousins have traveled great distances so the family can be together. You’re delighted of course to welcome them but there is so much to be done: beds to be made, food to be prepared and served, a table to be set, pots and pans to be washed, and you bustle about tending to one thing and then another, confident that it will all be accomplished and grateful that you have your sister to help you. You know that family gatherings like this are important—but still, there’s a lot to do, and you’re beginning to feel a bit worn. As you move from task to task, you look around to see what your sister is doing, but she’s out of sight. Then, much to your surprise, you see that instead of helping you, she’s sitting in the family room, listening to your grandmother tell stories about her childhood.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you can easily imagine how Martha must have been feeling in today’s gospel story, and you might empathize with her complaint to Jesus, “Make her help me!” And you might feel stung, as Martha surely did, when Jesus takes Mary’s side. It’s not what most of us would expect to hear.

Like the story of the Good Samaritan we heard last week, this story of Mary and Martha is a familiar one. And just as “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous for one who cares for others, so have the names “Mary and Martha” when uttered together, come to stand for the dilemma we find ourselves in from time to time, caught between the duties and constraints society places on us on the one hand and the desires of our hearts on the other.

It’s easy for most of us to identify with Martha, with the feeling of being put upon, having to take care of everything, having to be responsible while others are off, seemingly having more fun. Martha’s complaints were, by most measures, legitimate: As our OT reading illustrated, hospitality was a fundamental value; it was her role to provide a meal for her guests, to make sure their needs were attended to, and she had no one else to help her. So why does Jesus scold her and not Mary?

The answer to that lies, I think, in the nature of Jesus’ message to his followers throughout this part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus consistently challenges his listeners to go beyond their comfort zones, to push the boundaries and restrictions that govern their lives, to put their relationship with him above even other culturally and religiously mandated behaviors. Jesus’ rebuke of Martha follows his chastisement of the man who wanted to bury his father before joining the disciples and the one who simply wanted to bid his family farewell. When Jesus says to Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part,” it is not so much a rebuke of the work Martha does—because it is good and necessary work—as it is a validation of Mary’s choice to take another way: to sit and listen, taking on the role of learner, of disciple, a role normally reserved for males.

Jesus legitimizes Mary’s choice to act as disciple and in doing so he seems to legitimize women’s place in the life of the church. That would be radical enough, but I think Jesus’ message extends even beyond that. In the 1st century world of Palestine both men and women were entangled in and restrained by a complicated web of rules and expectations that defined what it meant to be respectable members of society. Jesus’ call to follow him was also a call to break out of that entanglement, to let go of the societal and cultural bonds that restrained them and to take on his yoke instead. This is a liberating message because when taken to heart it allows us to fully claim our identity as God’s beloved children, nothing more and nothing less.

By chance, we hear this liberating message at the start of a week that will include the feasts days celebrating the lives and ministries of six remarkable women, women who like Mary chose, in their quest to follow Jesus, a path different from that prescribed for them by society. Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Macrina, a fourth century teacher and theologian. Macrina came from a family of wealth and power, but she convinced her mother to use the family fortune to start a monastery on the family estate. Macrina had ten younger brothers—three of whom became noted bishops: Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Peter of Sebastea. Most of what we know about Macrina comes from a tribute written by Gregory, which credits Macrina with being their teacher and their spiritual director, the one who guided them on their journeys in faith.

On Tuesday we will observe the feast day of four 19th century women, all of whom defied the bonds placed on them by society to seek justice for the oppressed and downtrodden. Two of these women, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, were born into slavery, and after escaping those bonds worked tirelessly to free others and to abolish the practice of slavery in this country. After the civil war ended they joined their voices with those of the other two women whose feast day they share, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, in the long struggle to gain equal rights for women.

And Thursday is the feast day of Mary Magdalen. Although tradition is rich with stories about Mary Magdalen, we know very little about her actual life. Some argue that it was she from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons and some claim that it was she who wiped Jesus feet with her hair after anointing them with oil. The gospels record that she was among the followers of Jesus, and that she was present at his crucifixion and burial. It was Mary Magdalen who found the empty tomb and it was Mary Magdalen who was sent by the resurrected Jesus to tell the others what had happened, earning her the name of “apostle to the apostles.” Like the Mary in today’s gospel story, Mary Magdalen chose following Jesus, chose the role of disciple over the traditional roles her culture sanctioned for her.

The six women whose lives and ministries we celebrate this week are a diverse group but they have at least one thing in common. Like Mary in today’s gospel these women refused to be bound by the limits that society placed on them, instead choosing a different way. These women are wonderful icons of women’s discipleship and women’s ministry, but they are more than that. Their lives and work remind all of us, women and men alike, that as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ, we are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; we are neither gay nor straight, black nor white, young nor old, rich nor poor. In Christ we are not bound by human categories nor by the roles and restrictions society places on us. Rather we are called first and foremost as God’s beloved children. No matter what other roles or vocations we choose to take on, it is in this identity that we become most truly ourselves; it is in this identity that we are freest to love the One who made us, and to seek and serve Christ in all we meet. And for that we give thanks to God.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Sermon for Independence Day

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 4, 2010 Independence Day
Matthew 5:43-48

"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Today’s gospel, the one set in the lectionary for Independence Day, comes from one of my favorite parts of scripture—the Sermon on the Mount, that long discourse in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus lays out for his audience just what it means to be a disciple. For me, it is truly a handbook for being a Christian. Not everyone views it that way, of course. Figures as illustrious as Martin Luther have argued that the Sermon on the Mount puts discipleship out of the reach of ordinary people by setting an impossibly high standard for behavior, what with the “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” and “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.” I prefer to think of it as setting the bar high; as giving us an ideal to strive for: being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. And although we could spend our time lamenting that of course we will never be perfect, or excusing ourselves by saying that since we will never be perfect we may as well not try, it seems to me to be more profitable to strive for becoming more like the God who created us than to dwell in the ways we fall short.

There is no doubt that Jesus does set high standards for us. He begins the portion of the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s gospel is drawn by claiming that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but rather to fulfill them, and then he outlines a number of different ways that his followers are called to go beyond what the law would demand in their relationship with others. It’s easy, he concludes, to care about the folks we like, but if we are to enter into God’s kingdom, we must also care about those we DON’T like, and the ones who don’t like us. No small task, that.

Jesus is not the only one to set high standards. The founders of our country did so as well, and as we celebrate our Independence Day we do well to recall just what those standards are:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In a society in which the divine right of kings was largely unquestioned, in which there were clear social hierarchies and in which power was invested in those with means, these ideals were, like the injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount, almost impossibly out of reach. And the rich irony is, even the author of these words and the endorsers of the declaration from which they came applied them selectively. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned human slaves. It took almost 100 years before black men in America were accorded the right to vote and close to another 100 years before it was safe for them to do so. And although women asked for the vote in 1848, they didn’t receive it until 1920, almost 150 years after those words were enshrined in the founding document of our country.

The founding fathers, you see, were defining “all men” as “people like me.” To be fair, they were no different from the major philosophers, theologians and scientists of the day in believing that white males were the epitome of creation, and white males were the group they defined as “all men.” The beauty of what they wrote, of the principle they established, however, is that it is expansive and inclusive enough to take in all of humanity, as we come to grasp that humanity is not limited by gender or race or orientation or any of the others human categories we use to make sense of the world. Just as we must care about those whom we don’t like, so too must we uphold the rights of those who may not be just like us.

And though we’ve made great strides, we still struggle with both standards. We seek to include all of humanity under the umbrella of liberty and justice, even as we nit-pick and argue about how to do so. And we labor as well with loving those we really don’t like—loving our enemies, loving those who don’t see the world we do, loving those whose desires for us are not always good ones.

But love them we must. Care about them we must. Because God does—God loves each and every one of us without prerequisite. God makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. And our call is to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.

We won’t make it, of course, not in this lifetime, just as this great nation will not live up to its ideals of liberty for all. But that’s no reason not to try, not to strive to be the people we are called to be. As a nation that means endeavoring to be true champions of justice and beacons of equality; it means welcoming the tired, huddled masses who yearn to breathe free; it means defending the rights of the least among us.

And as followers of Jesus, children of God, it means aiming always to live into the image of God in which we were created; it means turning the other cheek when we’d rather fight back; caring for others who might not care for us in return; giving to other when we’d rather hoard for ourselves; it means loving God and our neighbor and putting that love ahead of everything else.

Easy? Not at all! But think about this: We do this for the God who created us to delight in us and who loved us enough to become incarnate among us, to live and die among us, to take on our pain and our suffering. We do this for the God who continues to love us beyond measure even we when we are utterly unlovable. We do this so that the Kingdom of God might flourish now and forever. Is that not reason enough to try?


Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

June 27, 2010

Luke 9:51-62

Breathe on me, Breath of God, and fill me with thy Spirit that I may serve only to glorify thee. Amen.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

I love this poem by Robert Frost; I love the way it evokes winding trails in golden Vermont autumns, and I love it for its sense of quiet reflection. But most of all I love it because it captures something of the essence of my own life, one traveled on paths off the beaten trail, sometimes lonely, sometimes scary, but almost always leading to unexpected adventures and unsought-for treasures.

This poem might also be an apt metaphor for the journey Jesus begins in today’s gospel. Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is the city where prophets die, the place where his destiny will play out. The rest of the stories in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ ministry are told in the context of this journey, which as it turns out is less geographical than theological. Luke’s readers don’t get a travelogue of the way to Jerusalem; instead they get a series of stories illustrating what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and what Jesus’ power means for the world.

Right off the bat we get a lesson in setting our priorities. Jesus encounters someone who says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Perhaps Jesus’ BS detectors were on full-tilt; perhaps he was just wary of a promise that came so quickly, but he replied not with, “Sure, come along,” but rather with, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," a not-so-gentle reminder that with discipleship comes a cost, in this case potential homelessness.

To another would-be disciple, Jesus says, “Follow me,” but the man says that he must first bury his father. In a culture where honoring one’s family is paramount, in religion where burial of the dead was a son’s duty, Jesus’ reply that even this obligation should not delay proclaiming the good news is startling. And to the third who wants to say goodbye to his family before departing, Jesus cautions against looking back when one is seeking the kingdom of God.

We can only imagine the reactions of the would-be disciples Jesus admonishes this way. Did they slink away in embarrassment? Did that go along with Jesus leaving families behind? We don’t really know. But we can empathize with how they might have felt when Jesus reminded them that with discipleship comes sacrifice and responsibility, because I suspect that we often feel much the same way.

As Christians in the 21st century Jesus is inviting us to travel with him on the way less traveled by. Yes, that’s right. Despite our implicit assumption that we live in an at least quasi-Christian society, in a country where Christianity is the predominant religion, to truly follow Jesus, to take discipleship seriously, to live a gospel-centered life requires us to make choices that are counter-cultural, that are sometimes inconvenient, that cause us to reassess our priorities and our normal way of being.

Consider this: Almost 75% of American adults consider themselves to be Christians[1]. Yet no more than 40% (and perhaps as few as 20% depending on how you view the stats) attend church regularly, where “regularly” is defined as 3 out of every 4 Sundays. Only 3-5% tithe, although 17% claim they do. Religious beliefs are far less important than personal experience in shaping political views.

So what does “being Christian” mean to the average person who claims that affiliation? Is it like being “American?” An identity we are born with, the benefits of which we often just take for granted? Is it like being a Yankee fan? Something we claim to show we are on the right team, a team we are loyal to and root for but that requires little else from us? Is it just the box we check off because none of the others fit?

What does it mean to be Christian? The bottom line seems clear: although we call ourselves Christian, our faith has relatively little influence on our “real life” short of perhaps prompting us to be “good.”

The gospel, however, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is asking for more Jesus is not interested in lip service; he is asking for commitment. Jesus is asking us to prioritize our lives consciously, to live intentionally, to put the demands of discipleship, of the gospel FIRST. FIRST. Rather than letting the ever-shifting norms of popular cultures define what is important, Jesus asks us to make decisions about how we spend our time and our resources in light of our faith, our beliefs, our spiritual values.

We need to ask ourselves what is really important. What do we want to do with this “one wild and precious life[2]” God has given to each of us? Are we willing to say no to some things that are good and desirable (like sleeping in on Sunday, a soccer game, a cruise or a trip to Disney) in order to say yes to things that are more important for ourselves and our children, more central to God’s kingdom (like regular church attendance, sacrificial giving, real Christian formation, caring for the poor and oppressed)?

We need to ask these questions of ourselves as individuals and as a parish. As difficult as it is, our spiritual lives depend on it. One of the most difficult areas to prioritize this way is our money, but over the next few months as we gear up for our fall stewardship campaign, I will be inviting you to do just that. We live in uncertain times, and it is easy, understandable to feel that we must protect our resources, perhaps cut our spending. Often that means that we put giving to the church at the bottom of the list. But is that what God is calling us to do? Is that the priority Jesus sets for us when he says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” or “where your heart is there your treasure will also be” or “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required?”

These are not easy questions to address, and in the coming months I hope that we will take time to talk about them in more depth. But we need to do so in light of Jesus’ message in today’s gospel: we must get our priorities straight if we are to be disciples of Jesus. And we must ask ourselves this:

Are we willing to go with Jesus down the road less traveled?


[1] The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

[2] Mary Oliver

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday
May 30, 2010

Breathe on me, Breath of God, and fill me with thy Spirit that I may serve only to glorify thee. Amen.

Most of you know that I am one of that increasingly rare breed, a “cradle” Episcopalian. I like to say that the prayer book is in my bones, the words of the Eucharist in my DNA. So it might surprise you to know that much of my pondering about today’s theme, the Trinity, was triggered not by what I learned in Sunday School, or by sermons I heard, but rather by conversations I have had with my Jewish seminarian friends. I met these friends, four women studying to become rabbis at the time I was studying for the priesthood, in the crucible we know as “CPE”—clinical pastoral education—interning as hospital chaplains not only to learn the ins and outs of working with the sick and the recovering and the dying, but also to manage group dynamics, figure out healthy boundaries, practice taking on pastoral authority, and grapple with real-life theological issues. It was an intense experience.

Given that intensity, perhaps it is no wonder that it led to some deep theological discussions, as our own faith, our own understanding of how God worked in the world was tested on a daily basis by the tragic realities of life. And so we probed our views of prayer and our beliefs about evil in the world and why bad things happen, and who this God we believed in was anyway.

It was in one of these discussions that I really began to grapple with the whole notion of the Trinity. It wasn’t something new to me—how many times must I have recited the Nicene Creed at that point, declaring my belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? How many times had I crossed myself at those words, or prayed to God in the name of the Son through the power of the Spirit? But when pushed by my Jewish colleagues to talk about the Trinity, I realized how ill equipped I was to do so.

We often argued, you see, about whether we shared the same God; on one level it seemed that we did: the creator, the holy one who covenanted with a people, led them out of Egypt, delivered them at the Red Sea, and took them to the promised land where their fortunes ebbed and flowed. But then would come the questions. “If you believe in one God,” my friends would ask, “then how can you say Jesus was God?” And even if Jesus is God, what about this whole “Holy Spirit” thing? How can SHE be God, too? How can you have three Gods if you believe in the One God?

At this point, what I always wanted to do was to throw up my hands and declare, “It’s a mystery!” which is, of course true and at the same time, as my formerly Catholic friends who grew up attending parochial school where the nuns regularly used that line remind me, is a cop-out.

My Jewish friends, however, asked a very good question—how can God—the One and Eternal Living God—be both one and three? How can we speak of Jesus as being God’s son if God and Jesus are one being? And how can we understand the Holy Spirit to be sent by Jesus when Jesus and the Holy Spirit are GOD?

Noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor likens this dilemma to a Buddhist koan. A koan, for those of you unfamiliar with Buddhism, is a paradoxical riddle or anecdote used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning, and to provoke intuition and enlightenment. One famous Zen koan asks, "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" Another queries, “What was the appearance of your face before your parents were born?”

Koans, truth be told, aren’t exclusive to Buddhism. We Christians have our own—right in the gospels. When Jesus says things like, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” (Matthew 10:39) or when he teaches with a parable, he is employing the same logic-busting, mind stretching language.

And maybe it is a matter of language. Maybe our language is inadequate for us to really express the meaning of the Trinity. Oh, we’ve tried. Ever since the fourth century when the Council of Nicea was called to settle disputes about the nature of Jesus, church fathers and theologians have argued about how to define, delineate, articulate this notion of one God in three, three unified in one. And they’ve been quick to label definitions or words that don’t suit them as “heresies.” I’m quite sure that whenever I try to wax eloquent about the Trinity I commit at least one of those heresies!

To get around this problem we resort to analogies: The Trinity is like a shamrock: three leaves making up one whole; the Trinity is like H2O, which we experience as water, ice and steam; the Trinity is like a Three Musketeers Bar: three for one and one for three.

20th century theologian and priest Robert Farrar Capon once described human attempts to explain the Trinity as like an oyster trying to describe a ballerina; we just don’t have the words, the concepts, the mental capacity to describe something so beautiful, to grasp the meaning of something as wondrous as the nature of God—and that is what the Trinity is about, isn’t it? The nature of God, the way God manifests Godself in the world, the ways God comes to us and acts in our lives? The way God relates to us, God’s human children?

And therein is the missing piece of all our analogies: relationship. For just as much as the Trinity is about how God relates to us it is even more about how God relates to Godself. We acknowledge this in the Nicene Creed when we say that Jesus was begotten by the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. But even that falls short for 21st century Christians, these notions of “begot” and proceed.

It is here that I think we can profitably borrow from a notion found in the Orthodox Church. They use the word perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around,” to describe the Trinity as God in relationship. The Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son are united in an exquisite divine dance.

I’m not sure that imagining the Trinity as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit moving gracefully in a Viennese waltz helps me to UNDERSTAND the Trinity any better, but it sure does help me appreciate it. God in a divine dance amongst the heavens, circling the stars, swooping amongst the galaxies all the while enfolding us, God’s children into that Trinitarian embrace. Creator, redeemer and sanctifier moving in and through us bringing us into step. God, Word, and Wisdom filling us and calling us into relationship with the Almighty. It takes my breath away.

In the end, I still can’t explain the Trinity, how One God is Three and Three are One; it will remain a koan, a paradox, a mystery flirting with comprehension. Nonetheless I know we can be drawn into that wonderful dance, that relationship in and with God, and we can be moved by that power of the One who made us, redeemed and calls us to holiness. AMEN

Inspiration and images drawn from “Three Hands Clapping,” in Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, Cowley, 1999.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

5 Lent March 21, 2010

John 12:1-8

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen

One of my favorite Christmas stories is O. Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi. You probably remember how it goes: The characters are a young couple…deeply in love, and very poor. Christmas is coming and each of them wants very badly to give a gift to the one they love…something special, something that will fulfill the other’s deepest longings. Of course, this couple doesn’t have much money, but they do have two things of inestimable value: her long, thick luxurious hair which falls below her knees, and his gold pocket watch, inherited from his father and grandfather. You know what happens—she decides to sell her hair to buy him a beautiful chain for his watch, only to find out that he has sold his watch to buy her combs to hold her long, thick hair.

It’s a story rich in irony, with a bit of pathos thrown in; it’s a story too that might have us shaking our heads over the impetuousness of young love, the foolishness of their choices, the wastefulness of it all. But you know, as foolish as those choices might have been, they also represent a generosity of spirit, an extravagance of selfless love and the kind of beyond measure, and an example of truly sacrificial giving. In their pouring out of love for the other, each demonstrated a willingness to give up the only thing of value they possessed—each made the sacrifice for the other. It’s a great story.

You might be wondering why I am telling a Christmas story during Lent. No I haven’t lost track of time, or taken leave of my senses. I’m telling this story because I think it shares a theme with today’s gospel. Like the young couple in O. Henry’s story, Mary of Bethany, moved by her love for Jesus, does something that on the surface seems senseless and wasteful, but that in reality embodies the generosity of spirit and willingness to give sacrificially in service of others modeled for us by Jesus.

Today’s gospel finds Jesus in Bethany, the village that is home to Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus has, of course, been here before -- the last time he visited he raised Lazarus from the dead, an action that not gave further evidence of his power and authority among his followers but also helped to set the stage for his upcoming arrest, stoking the ire of the authorities who feared that power and authority. Now, six days before the Passover and about to go on to Jerusalem, Jesus returns to Lazarus’ home, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary host a dinner for Jesus and the disciples who are with him.

Dining customs in the first century Mediterranean were different from what we are accustomed to. Instead of sitting upright with feet firmly planted on the floor, people reclined at the table. One unintended consequence of this was that one’s feet might be in close proximity to the head of others reclining near them. And because streets and roads were dusty, and dirty, and often reeked of raw sewage, washing the feet of guests when they arrived was more than just a gesture of hospitality—it was a necessity, and it was a job generally reserved for a servant, not a host. So what comes next was extraordinary on a number of levels.

Mary, perhaps not satisfied by the mere washing of Jesus’ feet, knelt and anointed them, using a pound of expensive perfume oil, made from nard, lavishing the oil onto his feet, filling the air with the sweet scent of the precious oil, and then wiping his feet with her hair. With this one simple act, Mary violated all sorts of social boundaries. She used expensive oil—worth a year’s wages by some accounting—an extravagant waste by most standards. She let down her hair in public—a social taboo for Jewish women. And she anointed not Jesus’ head—the part of the body we might expect to be anointed—but his feet. Why would she do such a thing?

Anointing was known in two contexts in Mary’s world. It was an act often associated with royalty—oil was poured on the heads of kings, an anointing that signified their authority. The term “christos” in Greek, or “messiah” in Hebrew connotes one who has been anointed, set apart for some special purpose. Anointing was also something done to bodies after death, part of the ritual done to prepare them for burial and an act carried out with the respect.

In a way, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet reflects both these practices. Mary had already implicitly signified that she recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he came to raise Lazarus. Her anointing of his feet reinforces that recognition. But even more than that, in anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary symbolically foreshadows the anointing of his body that would normally take place before it would be placed in the tomb—an anointing that the body of Jesus actually never receives. Mary is pouring out her love for

Jesus now because on some level she realizes that he will not be with her later.

Mary symbolically pours out her love for Jesus when she pours the precious oil on his feet--an extravagant gesture, and one that some like Judas would say was wasteful. Wouldn’t it have been better to use the money to help the poor? Or to save the oil for a more appropriate occasion? But Mary’s action, just like the gifts of the young couple in O. Henry’s story, is extraordinary not because of its monetary value, but because it signifies a willingness to make a sacrifice that on the surface seems beyond reason—a sacrifice motivated by pure love.

In anointing Jesus’ feet Mary also anticipates what Jesus will do on the night before he is arrested, when he humbly kneels to wash the feet of his disciples, and then commands the twelve that they should do likewise. Jesus’ act of humble servanthood in the washing of his disciples’ feet, like Mary’s act of anointing his feet, takes place in the shadow of the certainty of his death—a death that will be the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus’ act, like Mary’s, is an outpouring of selfless love, an expression of love’s triumph over death. And this act of selfless love, of humble servanthood, of sacrificial giving becomes the model for the disciples to follow.

Perhaps it is here that Mary’s act takes on its greatest significance. Mary is not one of the “official disciples”—she is a female, after all. She appears only twice in this gospel—we won’t meet her again after Jesus leaves Bethany and goes on to Jerusalem. But in this single act of anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary embodies what discipleship means in John’s gospel. She recognizes Jesus for who he is and she kneels in service. She acts spontaneously, without asking questions, without the encouragement that the other disciples will receive, and she gives with thought of what it might cost her. Mary loves selflessly, and she acts generously, extravagantly, sacrificially out of that love. She personifies the values Jesus has preached and taught and lived.

As we approach this final week of Lent, we might do well to ask ourselves how we might be called to be more like Mary. Are we called to love more extravagantly? To act more generously? To give more sacrificially? Can we put aside our own self-interest, our petty squabbles, our selfish wants and instead live a life that is centered on loving God and on acting on that love in our daily lives? And if we were to do so, what might it mean for our families, for ourselves, for our parish, for the world?


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

The Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2010

Luke 13:31-35

The Hen roosted high on her perch;

Hungry Fox down below, on the search,

Coaxed her hard to descend

She replied, "Most dear friend!

I feel more secure on my perch.”

~Baby's Own Aesop (1887)

I suspect that we’re all familiar with the image of a fox in a henhouse. Folklore is full of stories of sly and cunning foxes trying to outwit supposedly simpler creatures like hens in order to make a good feast of them. I have a vivid memory of a story that my grandmother used to read to me of a fox who used all his wiles to convince a mother hen to let him into her house, and then captured the hen and her chicks and carted them off in a big sack so that he might dine on them in the comfort of his own cozy den. The mother hen was far too clever for the crafty fox, however, and when he stopped to nap on his way home, she used her sewing scissors (in a testimony to her cleverness, her sewing kit was tucked into her feathers) to release her family from captivity, and with the help of her children, filled his sack with river rocks and sewed it back up so that he would notice their escape, proving once again that even the wily fox could be outsmarted.

In today’s gospel we hear Jesus refer to Herod as “that fox” “Fox” was an apt descriptor for Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and ruler of the regions of Galilee and Perea. This Herod, you might recall, divorced his wife to marry his brother’s widow, and had John the Baptist arrested and later beheaded when John condemned him for that marriage. Herod had felt threatened by John, not only because of the accusations of adultery, of breaking Jewish law, but also because John was so influential among the people that Herod feared he might incite revolution. And according the gospels, Herod Antipas was both fascinated by and fearful of Jesus, the itinerant preacher he heard so much about, and it is entirely likely that Herod did wish Jesus dead and out of the way.

Jesus, however, is not deterred by the threat of that fox, Herod. Jesus is on a mission, and he has set his face towards Jerusalem—Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God; Jerusalem, the place where Isaiah tells us that God’s glory shall be revealed (Isaiah 24:23); Jerusalem, the place where the prophet Micah reminds us that God is betrayed by those who hate the good and love what is evil (Micah 3:2). Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles, and now Jesus is on his way there to fulfill his destiny.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus laments, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

What a poignant image! Jesus doesn’t use the metaphor of a fierce mother lion protecting her cubs, nor even that of an eagle with sharp beak and talons to drive away the enemy; instead he uses the image of a mother hen, a relatively small and gentle creature who in her ferocious desire to protect her young can only draw them close to her, gathering them under the mantle of her wings, covering them with the protective blanket of her love.

Modern day Christians sometimes like to portray Jesus as a mighty warrior, to describe his power in military terms, but to me, this image of a mother hen protecting her brood speaks of a power far greater, far deeper than any power that comes in a display of force. When Jesus uses this metaphor of a mother hen it seems to perfectly captures the essence of the power he exuded, a power lived out in the love he preached and taught and lived—a love that cannot coerce but rather invites, a love that does not back down in the face of greater physical might, a love that crosses all human boundaries and reaches out to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the sinner.

As it turns out, Herod is not the only fox loose in Jerusalem, no indeed. Jerusalem is full of foxes, religious leaders, government officials, common folk, even a disciple who, seduced by some secular vision of power and might, fear, the itinerant preacher and healer who has come into their midst, fear him enough that like the proverbial fox in the henhouse, they act to betray him and have him crucified before he can stir up any REAL trouble.

But it’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Just like in the story my grandmother told me about the hen who helped her children escape, the love of the mother hen who would gather the children of Jerusalem—the people of God—under her wings wins the day. The foxes loose in Jerusalem were “outfoxed” by Jesus whose powerful love could not be stilled by the cross, could not be quenched by earthly powers, could not be contained by death; a powerful love that is still very present and very real in the world today.

In this season of Lent, it might be worthwhile for us to keep in mind the notion of the fox and the hen. Foxes are crafty and seductive and they seek to lure us away from the care of the One who loves us. So who or what are the foxes in our own lives? Could they be the lure of material goods—the ever bigger and better TV, the more powerful computer, the sleeker car—or the promise of power? What about greed—not just that appetite for more, more, more, but the greed that makes us reluctant to share of the abundance we already have? Could our fox wear the guise of sloth, or mere laziness, the inertia that keeps us from doing even things we claim to care deeply about? Or perhaps our fox has slipped in as the urge to gossip, the tendency to think the worst of others, thoughtlessness, or even cruelty?

As we look for the foxes who might have crept into our lives, we might also recall the powerful and unassuming loved of the One who laments for his beloved who have gone astray, the One who would gather his lost children to him as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we might recall that the cunning fox does not always win the day.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2010

Luke 4:1-13

Lord, make me a hollow reed so that Your Voice might be heard by all who hear these words. Amen.

Do you know how it feels when you’re just starting out on a vacation? The planning is done, the laundry is finished, the packing is taken care of, the dog is boarded, the mail is stopped, the lights are off, the doors are locked, and finally you are on your way, filled with sweet anticipation. That’s sort of where we are now in our church year as we enter into our Lenten journey: Epiphany’s passed, the palms are burned, the ashes smudged on our foreheads to remind us of our common humanity, and our shared mortality, and we’ve set our faces towards Jerusalem, pledging to keep a holy Lent.

Only, only that anticipation we feel? It may not be so sweet. It may in fact be tinged with a bit of dread, a sense of “let’s hurry up and get this over with.” We’ve described Lent as a long, dark journey, a time of sorrow and repentance, a time for taking up a discipline to help us turn back to God, and it may feel like it’s going to be a looonng six weeks.

But as we undertake our Lenten journey, it’s a good time to add a cautionary note, a reminder that may lighten those that Lenten anxiety that sometimes grips us. For despite our emphasis on penitence and on discipline, we need to remember Lent is not about feeling guilty or inadequate, and it’s not about being able to stick to some sort of self-deprivation just to prove to ourselves, or to others, that we can. Instead, as somber as it is, Lent—and all those things we undertake during Lent—should be a means of turning back to God, renewing our faith, remembering God’s abiding and ever-present for love for us, and taking up the hard work of discipleship. And our readings during Lent help us with this task.

On the first Sunday in Lent each year we hear the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and this year we hear Luke’s version. Just as Matthew and Mark do, Luke tells us that Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days and while he is there he is tempted by the evil one, the one we call the devil. “Tempted” is the word used in most translations, but really, “tested” may better convey what Jesus experienced. We’re tempted by the candy bars merchandisers skillfully place by the check out counters, by the pull of our favorite clothing store in the mall, or by the lure of the next new electronic gadget—we all understand that kind of temptation, but what the devil dangled in front of Jesus –well, let’s just say the stakes were considerably higher. All three of the tests the devil presented to Jesus ultimately had to do with what kind of a Son of God, what kind of a messiah he would be; all three of them had to do with earthly power and might, all three had to do with the how Jesus would live into the vocation given him at his baptism.

The first temptation has to do with food. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus is near starvation. The very thought of bread must have filled him with overwhelming desire. But rather than succumbing, rather than turning the stones into bread, Jesus recalls how God provided manna for the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness to demonstrate that humans do not live by bread alone,. Next the devil offers Jesus power and dominion over all the nations of the earth, if only he will worship the evil one—and wouldn’t that be a good thing, if Jesus were in charge instead of the Romans? But again recalling the travails of his ancestors, Jesus responds with the words Moses spoke to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land, “Worship the Lord, your God, and serve him” for it is from the Lord that all has come, and to whom all power belongs. Finally the devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple, and urges him to jump off, for if he is truly the son of God a thousand angels would surely rush in to save him. One more time Jesus returns to the story of the Israelites about to enter their new home and repeats Moses’ words to them, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus resists the temptations set in front of him by the devil; he “passes” the tests by resisting the urgings of the evil one to turn away from God, to take for himself power and might, and to test, to push the limits of his Father’s love and care. Ultimately, in passing up these temptations, Jesus has demonstrated once and for all his absolute reliance on the trustworthiness of God’s love. Jesus didn’t need the presence of thousands of angels rushing him to save him in midair to demonstrate the power of God. Filled by the power of the Spirit in baptism, Jesus trusted in the unassailable care and presence of God for all, the same care and presence of God that carried all the way through to the resurrection, Christ’s victory over death and human sin, the ultimate show of God’s power and love.

We often hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a model for us in resisting the temptations of our world, temptations that can take us away from God and God’s will for us—and it can surely serve as such a model. But I think the message of this story is even larger than that, even more powerful than that. Just as Jesus trusted completely and without reservation in the power and goodness of God, just as he trusted completely and without reservation in God’s care and provision without the need to test the limits of that care and provision, so too can we trust in God’s power, God’s love, God’s provision for us. We do not need to test God’s love for us; we can rest assured that even when we cannot see it, even when we cannot feel it, it is there. We do not have to earn it, we do not have to “deserve” it; it is there.

As we move through Lent, as we walk that road towards the cross with Jesus, as we seek to reorient ourselves towards God through our Lenten disciplines, may we rest securely in the assurance of God’s unassailable love and care for us, now and for ever.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-36

Lord, make me a hollow reed so that Your Voice might be heard by all who hear these words. Amen.

In our readings today, this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we encounter not one, but two characters being “transfigured.” “Transfiguration” is not a word that is in our everyday vocabulary—but if you’ve read any of the Harry Potter novels, you’ll be familiar with the concept. In the magical world of witches and wizards, the ability to transfigure—to change oneself into another creature—is one of the many magic skills students are taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s clearly a useful skill, allowing one to travel about undetected, as Professor McGonagall does when she becomes a cat, or to hide from one’s enemies, as Harry’s godfather Sirius Black does, taking the form of a big shaggy dog when he escapes from Azkaban, the wizarding prison, and as the more nefarious Peter Pettigrew does as a rat, hiding out from his former master, the evil Lord Voldemort.

You might have noticed that in all the examples I’ve given, transfiguration allows one to be less obvious, to go unnoticed. But the kind of transfiguration that Moses and Jesus undergo is quite different—their appearance changes, to be sure, but rather than making them less conspicuous, helping them to blend in, or to get by undetected, their transfiguration – with glowing white robes and luminous faces – puts them right in the spotlight. Rather than hiding their true identities, the transfigurations of Moses and Jesus reveal them as who they are—prophet and liberator on the one hand; messiah, son of God on the other, and they serve as vivid reminders of God’s enduring presence in the world.

Moses, you will recall, has led the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, into freedom—and right into the wilderness, where they must find their way, trusting in God to lead them to the “Promised Land.” The Israelites aren’t used to such freedom; it’s scary, and despite repeated assurances from Moses—and indeed, signs from God—they whine and complain every step of the way. When Moses ascends the mountain to consult with God on how to handle this recalcitrant people, he stay a little too long to suit the people, who, sure that they are being abandoned, quickly forge themselves a new “god”—a golden calf. When Moses, coming down with the stone tablets engraved by God, sees this idol he is so enraged that he drops the tablets and they shatter. It’s not just Moses who is angry, of course—God is angry, too, but Moses goes up the mountain again and intercedes, convincing God to give the Israelites yet one more chance. It is during this encounter that Moses is transfigured, and when he comes down, his face is shining so brightly that he must put a veil on it because the Israelites cannot bear to look at him.

You might have noticed that when Moses is transfigured, it is not during his first encounter with God. There is little doubt that each and every meeting with God, from the burning bush forward, changed Moses in some way, but this change was different, When Moses’ face was transfigured, changed so that his visage was so bright and shining that the people feared to look at him—well, that was more than Moses’ own personal transfiguration; instead, this was a sign to the people that God was still with them, and each and every time they gazed at Moses’ face alight with the glory of God, they would be reminded of that yet again.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in many way parallels that of Moses. Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James and John, climbs up a mountain to get away from the crowds that are always with him, to rest and to pray. As Jesus prays, his whole appearance begins to change – his clothes become a dazzling white, and his face begins to shine like the sun. And if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear beside him, and the three engage in a spirited discussion of what will come next for Jesus. Peter, James, and John, sleep-deprived as always and struggling to stay awake, don’t know what to make of this, and their wonderment and confusion must’ve only increased when the voice of God thundered from behind a cloud, “This is my son…listen to him.” When they came down from the mountain, they told no one of their experience, but surely as Mary did earlier, they must have pondered it in their hearts.

As it was for Moses, the timing of Jesus’ transfiguration was not accidental. Jesus’ ministry is drawing to a close, and he has begun to warn the disciples about what is to come, warn them that they, too, must be prepared to take up the cross. Peter has declared Jesus to be the messiah, the chosen one, but Jesus must have known that the disciples really didn’t understand who he was and what they would have to face. And so, witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus, seeing him reflect the glory and majesty of God, hearing God proclaim him as his son would’ve been for them like seeing Moses’ shining face was for the Israelites, a potent reminder of God’s on-going presence in their lives, a reminder that would become evermore important as they traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross.

The placement of these readings in our lectionary is not accidental, either. On Wednesday we’ll begin our long passage through Lent, retracing that road to the cross. Even though we have the assurance of the resurrection, the promise of Easter, this can be a dark, lonely and painful journey. We are asked to examine our lives, our hearts, our consciences; we’re asked to face up to our faults, to seek forgiveness, to turn away from those things that separate us from God and from being our best selves. We are asked to acknowledge not only Jesus’ suffering, but also our own and the world’s so that we may be truly prepared to enter into the joy of the resurrection at Easter.

Today’s readings remind us, as we undertake our Lenten journey, of the majesty and the glory of the God who created us, and of the promise of the God who does not, will not –has not ever—leave us on our own. Just as Moses’ shining face was a reminder to the Israelites that God will not abandon his people, no matter how difficult those people are, so too does it reassure us of God’s on-going presence in our lives. And just as Jesus’ transformation in the presence of Moses and Elijah proclaimed him as the messiah, the chosen one of God, so too does it affirm for us, that in Jesus, God’s promise to be with us always reaches its fulfillment. In that promise we can rest secure, knowing that we are held safely in God’s embrace, no matter how long or how hard the journey.